Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / Fairness and Justice

Locked Up or Locked Out: How Housing Insecurity Undermines Criminal Justice Reform

“My apartment is everything I prayed for when I was locked up,” Morgan[1] says, his brown eyes twinkling. “Do you want to see it?”

Morgan pulls his phone from his back pocket, turns the screen toward me, and opens a photograph of a bright galley kitchen with a couple of pots resting on the electric range. He swipes left, and a shower and porcelain toilet appear. Last is an image of Morgan’s front door, taken from inside his apartment. On the wall beside the doorframe he has mounted four wooden letters: H-O-M-E.

“I like leaving my apartment in the morning,” Morgan says, “but coming home is the highlight of my day—walking through that front door, with my own key.”

Every year, 600,000 Americans return to their communities from federal and state prisons,[2] and 11.4 million people are processed by local jails.[3] In 2010, Morgan was one of them. After serving a five-year sentence in Massachusetts state prisons, Morgan was released. He took a bus into the city. On the advice of another inmate, he connected with a local organization, Span, Inc., which provides social services and advocacy for people leaving prison. Span helped Morgan get into a sober house, where he spent a year. Then, with nowhere else to go, he became a long-term resident of a homeless shelter. He lived in that Boston shelter for more than eighteen months before his application for a housing voucher was approved. All told, it took Morgan more than three years to move into his own apartment.

Three years is a long time to live in limbo. The homeless shelter where Morgan stayed was sometimes “worse than prison,” he said. Drug use, theft, noise, and an inflexible curfew made it hard to play by the rules and get ahead.

Still, Morgan made it. The brass keys to his apartment jingle in his pocket. He’s working toward long-delayed plans, like finishing school and opening a barbershop. With a permanent, safe place to live, Morgan feels like his life is moving forward.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of “returning citizens” like Morgan leave prisons and jails and return to their neighborhoods, ready to reclaim their futures.

How can policy makers ensure that returning citizens find housing that supports their success?

Undoing Mass Incarceration

At the end of 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 6.9 million people were either incarcerated in US prisons and jails or under parole or probationary supervision in their home communities.[4] When those who are incarcerated return home—as over 95 percent eventually do[5]—they will join the 70 million to 100 million American adults with criminal records.[6] That’s roughly the same as the number of working-age Americans with college degrees.[7]

The costs of America’s overcrowded justice system are staggering. Researchers estimate that policing, prosecution, courts, public defense, and corrections together cost taxpayers more than $265 billion annually.[8] Moreover, prisons do not adequately rehabilitate people in their custody. Forty percent of people released from state prisons return within three years, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-partisan think tank.[9] A 2016 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors goes further, concluding that, “some criminal justice policies, including increased incarceration, fail a cost-benefit test.”[10]

The financial consequences of mass incarceration have motivated policy makers on both sides of the aisle to take action.[11],[12] A third of states have shortened their sentences for minor drug offenses over the last five years, reserving prison beds for the most serious and habitual offenders.[13] Additionally, thirty states participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a national effort to encourage states to adopt cost-efficient criminal justice policies and to reinvest the savings in proven public safety programs.[14] JRI-inspired laws in conservative states where one might least expect them—like Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina—have reduced prison populations and yielded significant savings.[15],[16]

As changes like these send more Americans home from prison, policy makers must ask: how does our society support—or create barriers to—successful reentry? The answer to this question is key to predicting whether efforts to reduce prison populations will stick or whether formerly incarcerated people end up back behind bars.

The Long Shadow of a Criminal Record

Helping returning citizens succeed requires an appreciation for the uphill climb they face in free society.

In some ways, life on the outside is harder than behind bars. Any savings that returning citizens built up before incarceration are likely exhausted over the course of their sentences;[17] in fact, paying fees and fines to the justice system often forces people with criminal records into debt.[18] The experience of incarceration also exacts both a physical and psychological toll that follows returning citizens home and can make it difficult to adjust to life on the outside.[19],[20] Leaving prison means learning how to use cell phones, computers, and other devices most people take for granted. And, crucially, it is harder to find work. Researchers find that job applicants with criminal records are 50 percent less likely to be interviewed by employers.[21]

To top it off, forty-eight thousand federal and state laws[22] make it challenging for people with criminal records to access housing, employment, public benefits, and other services.[23] For example, six states prohibit people with a felony conviction from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps.[24] Twenty-seven states automatically suspend or revoke the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses.[25]

The Importance and Challenge of Housing

One of the most urgent questions facing returning citizens is “Where will I live?” Formerly incarcerated people understand better than anyone that stable housing is the foundation they need to re-establish their lives. Having a physical address is often a prerequisite to interviewing for jobs, applying for public benefits, regaining custody of children, and enrolling in school. Additionally, private housing offers something most people take for granted: a safe place to store personal items like prescription medication, clean clothes for an interview, or books for a class. Housing also gives returning citizens a psychological boost and—like Morgan, who loves showing off photos of his apartment—a sense of ownership and pride.

Research also shows that having housing significantly reduces the chance that formerly incarcerated people will have further contact with the justice system. Being stably housed reduces the time returning citizens spend on the street, meaning they are less likely to run afoul of laws that criminalize homelessness, such as laws against loitering, sleeping in public, and panhandling.[26] Housing also reduces the risk of drug use, a strong predictor of recidivism.[27]

These positive effects spill over into returning citizens’ home communities. If returning citizens are less likely to commit new crimes, then members of their communities are less likely to experience crime. This is a major boon to low-income neighborhoods, where most returning citizens live. Very low-income people are three times more likely to be the victims of crime than higher-income people,[28] and children’s exposure to violence, as either a victim or a witness, harms their social-emotional and cognitive development.[29] Additionally, US taxpayers will spend fewer dollars on policing, sentencing, housing, and supervising these individuals in the future. These savings add up when the average cost to keep one person in state prison is over $31,000 per year.[30]

Detractors are quick to assert that scarce public benefits should go to stand-up citizens who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. It is politically challenging to articulate why making public programs available to people who have committed crimes is actually in the public’s best interest. “I can think of a thousand other issues politicians would prefer to champion,” said Harvard sociologist Bruce Western when I interviewed him in November 2016.[31] But the objection “Why should we help convicted criminals?” is easily answered if promoting justice and reducing both costs and crime are the public’s top goals.

Yet accessing housing is exceedingly difficult for people coming out of prison. Upon release, returning citizens face the following housing options: seek housing in the private market, move in with friends or family, apply for government-subsidized housing, or attempt to secure one of a limited number of places in a supportive housing program.

Are these even options at all?

The private housing market is virtually closed to people with criminal records. Since most returning citizens were low-income before entering the justice system[32] and are likely to leave the system with debt,[33] they need low-cost housing. Unfortunately, there is a massive affordable housing gap in almost every US county. Across the United States, 11.3 million extremely low-income households compete for just 610,000 affordable, unsubsidized units, according to the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy think tank.[34]

On top of their status as low-income and credit-challenged renters, all returning citizens have a criminal record, and roughly two-thirds are people of color.[35] These individuals are triply susceptible to both explicit and implicit discrimination by landlords. Because landlords are less likely to respond to renters with “Black-sounding” names[36] and very likely to run a criminal background check and credit check on applicants,[37] few returning citizens have a shot at affordable, unsubsidized housing.

Apartment seekers’ prospects are no better in the public housing market. Most housing authorities cannot begin to meet the high demand for housing assistance. For example, in New York City, the waiting list for the housing authority’s 178,000 apartments is 270,000 families long.[38] In Washington, DC, a much smaller jurisdiction, the waiting list is 42,000 households.[39]

To make matters worse, excessively stringent tenant screening criteria mean that returning citizens who committed even low-level and non-violent offenses are often barred from accessing subsidized housing themselves, or moving in with family members who already live in public housing. Federal law requires housing authorities to permanently deny any application or evict any household that includes a member who (1) has been convicted of methamphetamine production while on the premises of federally assisted housing, or (2) is subject to lifetime registration requirements under state sex offender registration programs.[40] Beyond these federally mandated exclusions, housing authorities retain far-reaching discretion.

To counter this, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent out a policy statement in June 2011, and official guidance in November 2015, to encourage public housing authorities to expand access to subsidized housing[41] and not to use arrest records as evidence of a criminal past.[42] As of 2015, however, housing authorities’ screening criteria and procedures were generally out of step with HUD guidance.[43] Any serious effort to improve housing for formerly incarcerated people must contend with the fact that hundreds of housing authorities reject out of hand any applicant with a criminal record.

Doing More of What Works to House Returning Citizens

Since President Trump assumed office, congressional leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to criminal justice reform.[44] However, local organizations are less optimistic about federal initiative.[45],[46] The good news is that states, counties, and cities are incubating effective and low-cost reentry solutions—and successfully navigating the politics to make them sustainable. In the absence of a clear commitment to returning citizens from President Trump’s administration, the following three recommendations promise positive impact, even in a political environment sensitive to risk and cost.

Establish Local Reentry Councils

First, organizations that serve returning citizens should create formal forums for collaboration. Public-private partnership is required to effectively assist formerly incarcerated people because of the complexity of the challenges they face.[47],[48]

From Seattle[49] and San Francisco[50] to Marion County, Indiana, and Austin, Texas, [51] reentry councils offer critically important forums for collaboration and information sharing. Councils can make it easier to make client referrals between organizations, collect data on shared clients, apply for pooled funding, and advocate for common policy interests.[52] Importantly, elected officials and public housing authorities can feel paralyzed by the potential political fallout of easing rules on formerly incarcerated people, according to Margaret diZerega of the Vera Institute of Justice when I interviewed her in January 2017.[53] Often, creating bolder programs and policies requires the support of diverse coalitions like reentry councils, which can do the research and share the risk.

Promote Family Reunification

Second, public housing authorities should use their discretion to help returning citizens reunite with their families. In fact, reentry councils can give housing authorities the push—or the political cover—they need to develop a family reunification policy.

Granting whole units of subsidized housing to returning citizens is a controversial proposition because subsidized housing is often viewed as a zero-sum game: any public housing unit or housing voucher granted to a returning citizen is one less unit or voucher available to a person with a clean record. However, many returning citizens have family already living in subsidized housing. Adding a returning citizen to his or her family member’s existing lease would not displace other applicants and may have positive benefits to the reunited family and the returning citizen.

Criminal justice reform advocates in New York had the same idea. In 2013, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) initiated a collaborative effort with several city agencies, community-based organizations, and the Vera Institute of Justice to develop the Family Reentry Pilot Program (FRPP).[54] Reentry service providers identified returning citizens interested in being reunited with family in NYCHA housing and helped eligible participants access supportive services and rejoin their families. The program engaged participants for two years, during which time they were required to follow an FRPP “action plan” in order to remain eligible to live in NYCHA housing.[55]

A program evaluation conducted by Vera Institute researchers found promising results: no participant was convicted of a new crime while in the program.[56] Additionally, the evaluation offered compelling testimony from returning citizens that having safe, affordable housing and reconnecting with family members stabilized their lives.

Even better, NYCHA agreed the program was a success. Since the pilot period ended in 2015, NYCHA folded FRPP into its regular operations, and the number of returning citizens placed with family members in public housing has steadily grown, up to ninety-three participants as of January 2017.[57] Prioritizing family reunification, New York found, is a low-risk, low-cost way to benefit returning citizens and their families, reduce recidivism, and maximize the use of the city’s coveted subsidized housing.

Pass Fair Chance Housing Ordinances

Finally, cities should pass fair housing policies to reduce the likelihood that private landlords deny applicants solely because of a criminal record.

Some cities have implemented housing policies similar to the popular “ban the box” measures now on the books in twenty-five states and 150 cities and counties across the country.[58] “Ban the box” removes the criminal history question from job applications and delays an employer’s investigation of an applicant’s criminal background until later in the hiring process.[59]

Fair housing ordinances operate the same way and express in local law what is already true at the federal level: landlords cannot reject applicants solely because they have a criminal record. Such exclusionary policies violate the Fair Housing Act because they have a disparate impact on Black and Latino Americans, who are grossly overrepresented in the US criminal justice system.[60] Fair housing ordinances may also specify that landlords cannot consider certain convictions that have no bearing on whether an applicant will be a safe, responsible tenant.

As this piece went to print, the cities of San Francisco, California; Richmond, California; Seattle, Washington; Urbana, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newark, New Jersey, had passed fair housing policies.[61]


Sitting across the table from Morgan in Span’s downtown office, I search for the silver bullet: “What advice would you give someone leaving prison today to come to Boston?” Morgan confidently recites his personal mantras: “Take your time. Use your head. Always be cordial. Because everything depends on you.”

I press further, wanting to understand what, exactly, enabled Morgan to find a home when so many powerful forces were working against him. “What or who helped you most after you got out?” I ask.

Morgan pauses for a moment and leans forward in his chair: “I was determined.”

Morgan has received significant moral and material support since his release from prison, and he is quick to recognize and thank the advocates who helped him along the way. But his response—“I was determined”—reveals a deeper truth about reentry in the United States: it requires tremendous resolve to succeed. Morgan’s case is an exception to the rule. The fact is, in our current system, many people can’t make it work.

As elected officials on both sides of the aisle work to improve the criminal justice system, they must keep housing for returning citizens at the top of the policy agenda. Achieving the public safety results we all want—fewer people in prison, less crime, more prosperous communities, and more efficient government spending—requires us to consider where people will go after prison and how to remove the barriers from their paths.

Photo Credit: O Palsson via Flickr

[1] Name was changed at the interviewee’s request.

[2] Jails are locally operated facilities that hold people who are awaiting trial or sentencing, or who are serving sentences less than one year, typically for misdemeanor convictions. Prisons are federally or state-operated facilities that hold people who are serving longer sentences, typically for felony convictions.

[3] The Federal Interagency Reentry Council: A Record of Progress and a Roadmap for the Future (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Federal Interagency Reentry Council, 2016), 3.

[4] Danielle Kaeble, Lauren Glaze, Anastasios Tsoutis, and Todd Minton, Corrections Populations in the United States, 2014, Bulletin. (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015), NCJ 249513.

[5] Federal Interagency Reentry Council, 3.

[6] “Poverty and Opportunity Profile: Americans with Criminal Records” (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2015), 1.

[7] Camille Ryan and Kurt Bauman, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015 (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, 2016), 1.

[8] Analysis of Tracey Kyckelhahn, Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts, 2012 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015), NCJ 248628.

[9] Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011), 2.

[10] White House Council of Economic Advisors, Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, 2016), 5, accessed 6 January 2017,

[11] Rachel Bade, “Criminal Justice Reform Gains Bipartisan Momentum,” Politico, 15 July 2015, accessed 1 February 2017,

[12] Eve Conant, “The GOP’s Born-Again Prison Reformers,” The Daily Beast, 3 July 2011, accessed 30 January 2017,

[13] Allison Lawrence, “Drug Sentencing Trends,” National Conference of State Legislatures, last updated 30 July 2016, accessed 6 January 2017,

[14] Federal Interagency Reentry Council, 10.

[15] “Success Stories,” Justice Reinvestment Initiative, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, accessed 6 January 2017,

[16] Justice Reinvestment in Texas: Assessing the Impact of the 2007 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2009).

[17] Meredith Booker, “The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth,” Prison Policy Initiative, 26 April 2016, accessed 30 January 2017,

[18] Rebecca Vallas, Melissa Boteach, Rachel West, and Jackie Odum, Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2015), 6.

[19] Craig Haney, From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities (Washington, DC, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), accessed 30 January 2017,

[20] David Cloud, On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2014).

[21] Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Bart Bonikowski, “Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment,” American Sociological Review 74 (October 2009): 777–799.

[22] Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, 2016, accessed 5 January 2017,

[23] Council of State Governments, National Inventory of Collateral Consequences, “Project Description,” accessed 22 February 2017,

[24] Eli Hager, “Six States Where Felons Can’t Get Food Stamps,” The Marshall Project, 4 February 2016, accessed 28 January 2017,

[25] After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry, A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records (New York: Legal Action Center, 2004), 17.

[26] Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (Washington, DC: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 2016), 9.

[27] John Bae, Margaret diZerega, Jacob Kang-Brown, et al., Coming Home: An Evaluation of the New York City Housing Authority’s Family Reentry Pilot Program (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016), 7.

[28] An individual with a family income less than $15,000 is three times more likely to be a victim of crime than a person with a family income of $75,000 or more; Benjamin Harris and Melissa Kearny, “The Unequal Burden of Crime and Incarceration on America’s Poor,” Brookings Institution, 28 April 2014, accessed 3 February 2017,

[29] Children’s Exposure to Violence: Indicators on Children and Youth (Washington, DC: Child Trends, 2016), 2.

[30] Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers (Washington, DC: Vera Institute of Justice, 2012), 10.

[31] Bruce Western, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in-person interview by Marie Lawrence, Cambridge, MA, 30 November 2016.

[32] Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned,” Policy Prison Initiative, press release 9 July 2015,

[33] Rebecca Vallas, et al., Removing Barriers to Opportunity, 6.

[34] The Urban Institute defines affordable units as “the total number of available and adequate rental units in this county affordable to extremely low-income households,” where “extremely low-income households” have no more than 30 percent of area median income. Units subsidized by programs of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development are excluded from the total stock of affordable housing because this discussion is focused on private housing available to people who cannot gain tenancy in public housing or through a Housing Choice Voucher. Erika Poethig, Liza Getsinger, Pamela Blumenthal, Josh Leopold, Reed Jordan, and Katya Abazajian, Mapping America’s Rental Crisis (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2015), accessed 3 February 2017,

[35] “Two-thirds” describes the proportion of state prisoners released in 2011 who were Black or Hispanic over the total number of Black, Hispanic, or White prisoners released in the same year. This is a rough estimation of the percent of returning citizens who are people of color, since other racial categories were excluded from the data analysis and the population under study did not include federal prisoners; E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991–2012 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics 2014), NCJ 243920, Table 13 and Appendix Table 2.

[36] Adrian Carpusor and William Loges, “Rental Discrimination and Ethnicity in Names,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 36 (2006): 934–952.

[37] Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich, One Strike and You’re Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2014), 19.

[38] Mireya Navarro, “As New York Rents Soar, Public Housing Becomes Lifelong Refuge,” New York Times, 3 August 2015, accessed 3 February 2017,

[39] Five Year Consolidated Plan: Fostering the Development of Strong, Equitable Neighborhoods (Washington, DC: District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development, 2016), 47.

[40] Marie Claire Tran-Leung, When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing (Chicago: Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, 2015), 7.

[41] John Bae, et al., Coming Home, 12.

[42] US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Public and Indian Housing, “Guidance for Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) and Owners of Federally-Assisted Housing on Excluding the Use of Arrest Records in Housing Decisions,” Notice PIH 2015-19, sent to all Public Housing Directors, 2 November 2015.

[43] Afomeia Tesfai and Kim Gilhuly, The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People With Criminal Records (Oakland, CA: Human Impact Partners, 2016), 17.

[44] Seung Min Kim, “Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push,” Politico, 4 January 2017, accessed 21 March 2017,

[45] Jamiles Lartey, “‘Justice for Some’: advocates worry Jeff Sessions could halt criminal justice reform,” Guardian, 18 November 2016, accessed 20 February 2017,

[46] Kate O’Keeffe, “Criminal-Justice Reform Efforts Brace for Tough Road in Trump Era,” Wall Street Journal, 10 February 2017,

[47] Amy Solomon, Executive Director of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, phone interview by Marie Lawrence, Washington, DC, 21 December 2016.

[48] It Starts with Housing: Public Housing Agencies Are Making Second Chances Real (Washington, DC: US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2016), 4.

[49] “Council Forms Prisoner and Community Corrections Re-entry Work Group,” Council News Release, 7 December 2015, accessed 20 February 2017,

[50] “Reentry Council,” City and County of San Francisco, accessed 20 February 2017,

[51] Reentry Councils for Ex-Offenders: A Report on Ten States and Best Practices, University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work and Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable, August 2013, accessed 5 January 2017,

[52] Some of the steps recommended to organizations looking to create a reentry initiative make clear the benefits of such collaboration. “Starting a Reentry Initiative,” Council of State Governments Justice Center, accessed 21 February 2017,

[53] Margaret diZerega, Project Director, Sentencing and Corrections, Vera Institute of Justice, interview by Marie Lawrence, 24 January 2017, phone interview.

[54] Vera Institute of Justice, “NYCHA Family Reentry Pilot,” accessed 10 December 2016,

[55] John Bae, et al., Coming Home, 11.

[56] Ibid., 21.

[57] Margaret diZerega, interview by Marie Lawrence.

[58] Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery, Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies (Washington, DC: National Employment Law Project, 2016), accessed 3 February 2017,

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Office of General Counsel Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions,” US Department of Housing and Urban Development, guidance released 4 April 2016, accessed 3 February 2017,

[61]“Richmond City Council Adopts Fair Chance Housing Ordinance,” American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, press release 21 December 2016, accessed 21 March 2017,